ST. GEORGE — Ranked No. 1 all year, Desert Hills went into Saturday's 3A boys basketball state championship game as the clear-cut favorite against an opponent it beat by 20 points two and a half weeks ago.
Hurricane, though, wasn't fazed.
"I knew last time they played the game of their lives and we played a terrible game. I just believed that if we worked extremely hard that we'd come out on top," said Hurricane's Taylor Parker.
Amazingly, that's just how things played out on Saturday afternoon at Dixie State College.
The underdog Tigers slowed it down, played great defense and executed significantly better than they did in their previous meeting with Desert Hills to claim the 3A boys basketball state championship with the 52-49 victory.
"What we saw from our kids today was the heart of a champion. We had kids who were successful with our football program, we have kids who've been successful in our track program. I think some of that carried over to this championship game today," said first-year Hurricane coach Brian Vaifanua.
Desert Hills led for most of the first half, but the second half was a back-and-forth affair that was indicative of Region 9 games all year. It came down to a few key offensive rebounds and free throws, something Hurricane simply did better down the stretch.
"It was really important for us to just live in the moment and grind it out one possession at a time and just understand it was just going to come down to making plays," said Vaifanua.
In Desert Hills' 20-point win over Hurricane a few weeks ago, Thunder coach Steve Melessa thought Hurricane ran out of gas. That wasn't the case with the championship on the line.
"You got to credit their five guys for sticking with it and executing," said a very complimentary Melessa. "All four of our top teams could've won the state championship. They were all that good."
Clutch plays down the stretch proved to be the difference between Hurricane winning its first title since 1982 and denying Desert Hills its first title in its brief history.
No bucket was bigger than Boston Gubler's layup that put Hurricane ahead 48-47 with 2:29 remaining. Desert Hills had just scored four quick points in a span of 13 seconds to regain a 47-46 lead, and the top-ranked Thunder looked poised to potentially put the game away.
Instead, both teams went cold with neither scoring for two minutes.
Benson Rich finally ended the drought with a pair of free throws to push the Tigers' lead to 50-47 win 27 seconds remaining. Desert Hills' Brandon Simister responded with a pair of free throws 10 seconds later whittle it back to a one-point game.
Gubler put Hurricane back in front 52-49 with two free throws with 15 seconds remaining, and then the Tigers played outstanding defense in the final seconds, forcing Desert Hills into a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Looking back on that 20-point loss to Desert Hills, Gubler said it was exactly what his team needed.
"It definitely got us refocused and working hard again and realizing we need to get our act together, especially after that game."
Colton Marshall came up huge for Hurricane all game with 14 points and nine rebounds. Ott and Simister combined for 22 points to lead the Thunder.
3A Team All-tournament team
MVP — Boston Gubler, Hurricane
Colton Marshall, Hurricane
Tyler Ott, Desert Hills
Brandon Simister, Desert Hills
Walker Swenson, Dixie
Kyler Nielson, Cedar
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company